Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Q&A with Miriam Weinstein

Miriam Weinstein is the author of the new book All Set for Black, Thanks: A New Look at Mourning. Her other books include Yiddish: A Nation of Words and The Surprising Power of Family Meals. She lives in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Q: You wrote this book after the unexpected death of a good friend. How did writing this book affect you as you faced that and other losses?

A: Here is one of the reasons that writing can become addictive: If things are happening that are way beyond your control, you can put them into some kind of context. You can take ownership of the topic. You can become a quasi-expert.

Writing a memoir through the filter of the deaths of loved ones was certainly a weird idea. But writing it helped to both distance myself from, and immerse myself in, what was happening. In a year in which I got to wear my black outfits way too many times, it helped to create some meaning out of events that defy meaning.

Q: Your website says that the book "ditches the sanctimony to give us the help, and the laughs, that we actually need in times of mourning and grief." What impact do you hope it has on readers?

A: I hope that it helps readers to feel better about whatever phase of life they are in. (Black humor helps.) We might as well accept where we are, and look for the growth point.

If death is what is around us then, by all means, let’s be into death -- look for the exotic stories, the jokes, the honest-to-god pathos. Let’s be helpful to our friends who are grieving, and be kind to ourselves, if we are the mourners.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: One of the first essays I wrote was about what we wear to funerals, and why. (This is because I am deeply superficial; maybe a contradiction in terms but it feels accurate.)

And, because I am both vain and organized, I like to know that I have something appropriate to wear. At a time when I was getting good use out of my black outfits, I felt that, in the wardrobe department I was all set.

It also has an ironic meaning because that term, all set, really grates on me. It drives me crazy when a server in a restaurant asks me if I am all set; it feels like a shorthand for someone who cannot be bothered to distinguish between, say, would you like some more water, and are you gagging on that piece of gristle.

And so, since irony is distancing, and who really wants to wallow in this sort of stuff, it allowed me to address a tough topic in a manageable way.

Q: You write that the book "became a collection of thoughts about how we handle death in our culture..." After having written it, did your opinion change at all about how our culture deals with death?

A: Actually, my thoughts were confirmed. The most common response I get when I tell people what this book is about is, “Wow; we really need that; we do such a lousy job of dealing with death.”

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I write a blog for and about grandmothers: nothing treacly, just an assortment of funny, amazing, impressive, or strange things that grandmothers do. The title is, If It Weren’t For Grandmothers, We Might Still Be Apes.

I am also inching towards a book about parenting from the point of view of a grandmother. The working title is Grandma Has Seen It All, And She Suggests That You Avert Your Eyes.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Since my hair has gotten gray, black is not a great color for me.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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